This is not the post I expected to be writing today. Not because I thought the Rangers would win last night. I didn't. Rather, because I thought they would get embarassed again last night for the third straight game, punctuating a humiliating collapse. But they didn't. For 6 games, the Rangers forwards and defenseman were outplayed by a better team, and it was only because of the superhuman play of Henrik Lundqvist that they were able to "steal" a few games and have a chance of this series. But not last night. Last night, the Rangers showed heart, played a physical game, took the game to their opponent instead of letting it come to the them, and simply put, were the better team on the ice. Unfortunately, the better team doesn't always win. A few bad bounces, missed opportunities, and questionable officiating resulted in a 2-1 Game 7 defeat and an early playoff exit.
Let's get the referees out of the way quickly. I'm not going to claim that the Rangers lost this series or even last night's game because of the refs. I try to avoid blaming the refs when my teams lose. Instead, I usually blame Aaron Heilman. But the reffing in this series was a total joke. Donald Brashear goes unpenalized for a blatant cheap elbow to Blair Betts' head in Game 6 that knocked Betts out of the series and was so egregious that the league suspended Brashear for 5 games for it. Then later in the game, a scrum in which Brandon Dubinsky got bitten by a Caps player resulted in a game misconduct being given to...Dubinsky! Last night, I counted 5 obvious penalties on Caps players that went uncalled: 2 blatant ones against Avery (who it seems needed to be decapitated to draw a penalty), a clear bench minor for too many men (they had 7 guys on the ice), a goalie interference, and a high stick that hit Dan Girardi in the face. All of these were "missed." Fine, I get it, it's Game 7 and you want to let them play. Except in the third period, when Girardi cleanly checked Alex Ovechkin right on the puck, the refs pause, see Ovechkin appealing for a call, and the hand goes up in the air...2 minutes for interference. The good news, however, is that the NHL's wet dream of a Crosby-Ovechkin Conference Finals is still on track. I'm sure Gary Bettman slept fine last night.
But enough about that because that's not what this should be about. The Rangers played their hearts out last night. Sean Avery was the best player on the ice. Dubinsky and Ryan Callahan showed why they are the types of players that will one day wear letters on their jerseys. Lundqvist was dominant, making one acrobatic save after another, but ultimately not good enough. I didn't expect to be saying this the day after they blew a 3-1 series lead, but I am proud of this team. They left everything they had out on the ice and can go into the offseason knowing that at least when everything was on the line, when the knife was at their throats, they gave it everything they had.
Still, despite my lingering pride, I am left devastated once again by a team that gives me enough reason to hope and then crushes me again and again. The '94 Rangers were the only team I ever saw win a championship, but I was 11 years old and didn't appreciate what it meant. Since then, it has been mostly disappointment. This one was bad, but nowhere near the top of the list. (To review the official top 5: '06 Mets, '98 Jets, '00 Mets, '07 Rangers, and '07 Mets. Those were all much more crushing. How does '94 Knicks not make the list? Unclear. Too long ago and I was too young, I suppose.) That's right, a playoff series in which my team won the 1st 2 games and led 3-1 in nowhere near the worst. Those are the kind of teams I root for. So why do I do it? Because as bad as last night was and as shitty as I feel today, that's how good the ride to get there sometimes is. I obviously will never forget Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS, but you know what else I'll never forget? Game 6, the night before. Last night sucked, but going to Game 4 last week and holding on for a 2-1 win was incredible. So even when it ends in tragedy, I'm still left with the moments of euphoria that led me there. Also, I'll let you all in on a little secret: as pessimistic as I sometimes seem about my teams on the outside, deep down I'm actually way way too optimistic, which is actually the bigger problem. On a fundamental level, I always expect we're gonna win, but in the end, we always seem to lose. I know one day my payoff is coming and it will all be worth it. I hope. This Rangers team could probably look very different next year. They have a bunch of free agents and I'm sure there will be a lot of discussion of breaking up the core of the team - I'm looking at you, Scott Gomez. It will be a long, interesting off-season. But until then, let's go Mets and let the Mark Sanchez era begin...